Please Join Us in Honoring Milton Corn, MD

This blog post is based on remarks given at the May 17 Milton Corn Memorial Concert.

Yesterday, I was honored to join in a beautiful celebration for the life of Dr. Milton Corn, an amazing man who I regarded as my adviser, colleague, and—most importantly—my friend. I would like to thank his wife Gilan and all of Milt’s friends and family for creating that wonderful moment of togetherness. Many of us knew Milt when he was Dean of the School of Medicine at Georgetown University or in his role with the National Library of Medicine, and I suspect that some even knew him as a bon vivant around town!

While I’m sure many of you can remember the moment you met Milt, I actually can’t—in my mind, it seems like he was an ever-present professional of the big data and scientific technology community! As a newly minted PhD in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I remember Milt as eminent in our field… and that was 30 years ago! I got to know Milt as part of the medical informatics community that was just emerging as a research powerhouse. Milt was a mentor to me; he reached into the visions I had for—and breathed life into—the ways technology could support patient engagement. He was always supportive, but he was also a hard questioner who wanted to know the value of the community’s investment.

Milt brought so many gifts to the field of biomedical informatics. He brought his wisdom as a physician executive to a fledgling field, applying his gentle but direct guidance to inspire research in the domain. Milt also funded my research; I remember a phone call one August afternoon over 20 years ago when Milt said, “Do you still need money for this project? Because we have some end-of-year money for you, and it’s available if you want to use it,” which of course let us advance our original ComputerLink project.

Interestingly enough, I actually know very little about Milt’s role at NLM, although I know a lot about his contributions! He joined our beloved NLM in 1990 during the first decade of applying computer technology to health care, in support of Don Lindberg’s visionary leadership. Milt served as NLM’s ambassador to the broader academic and research community as both their instigator and a supporter of many novel research ideas. Milt was in love with ideas, but he never let that love cloud his judgment or interfere with his expectation that emerging fields needed good science. He was as enchanted with a novel approach to genetic analysis as he was with securing proposals to write important books that detailed the history of medicine.

Milt became a colleague, a trusted advisor, and someone I could talk with about biomedical informatics. We could laugh about the field while enjoying its growth. Later, Milt became my friend. We shared family stories, our love for our children, and the challenges we faced with them. I loved his humor—he had the best sardonic laugh in the world. And then, surprise of all surprises, Milt became my employee, which had nothing to do with his actions, but with my actions! I remember being very mindful of Milt during my first NIH interview, where one of the committee members asked what it was going to be like for me, and I said I’m now going to be the boss of someone who I felt that I have learned from my whole career… it’s going to be fabulous!

Not that it wasn’t daunting; for 25 years, my career success depended on Milt! And he was wise: on my first day on the job, Milt stopped by with a little gift—a bag of peanut M&Ms! What a way to level the playing field. Sometime during those first few weeks, Milt came to my office and said, “Anytime you need my desk for someone else, you just let me know, and I’ll go home.” Every year he would say that sentence, and every year I thought not yet, I need you here. I couldn’t be without Milt, the magic maker.

After working more closely with Milt, I realized his judgment, discernment, and incredibly keen sense of what was a good investment—and, more importantly, what wasn’t—were critical to how NLM functioned. Later in our time at NLM, we needed a single scientific director to unify our intramural programs, and Milt took this responsibility on. Adding the title of Acting Scientific Director to his already stretched ambit, Milt aligned our two very strong intramural research groups: one addressing computational biology, and the other, clinical health informatics. He guided these two very disparate groups of investigators into a single structure… not totally unified, but respectful of each other and clearly willing to meet halfway across the bridge.

I turned to Milt many times as counselor to my position. Navigating the federal waters as director of a venerable institute like the NIH National Library of Medicine was a challenge—even for someone who thought herself quite sophisticated in dealing with complex organizations. Periodically, I’d walk over to Milt’s office, settle into one of his nice leather chairs, and lay out whatever issue I was confronting or a personality that perplexed me. Through a question or a brief comment, he led me to solutions, insights, and confidence, but none more so than the day he said, “Your job is important, and you deserve to have fun—so make sure that you do that!” I am brimming with tears as I remember how his strength made me strong!

In October of 2020, Milt told me that the pandemic was good for him. What an odd statement, I thought. However, he revealed that our maximum telework posture, with everyone working from home, eliminated the need for him to make the long commute from Virginia to Bethesda. Working from home made it possible for him to continue to engage. And engage he did! He remained a mentor all the way up until his very last weeks at the National Library of Medicine. I remember the night he called me and said, “I don’t think I can come back to work anymore,” but he reminded me, “You can call me if you need me.” I took his generous offer to heart and took it up as often as I could.

Above all, Milt was important to me, to the National Library of Medicine, and to the entire scientific and clinical world. Thank you.

Recognizing Women in History All Year Round

Women in history — and women making history — featured in this post.
From left to right in the top row: Mary Lasker, Elizabeth Blackwell, Hope Hopps, Florence Sabin, Margaret Pittman, Patricia Palma, and Selma DeBakey. Middle row: Faye Abdellah, Deirdre Cooper Owens, Rosalind Franklin, Inez Holmes, Alice Evans, and Lois DeBakey. Bottom row: Maxine Singer, Virginia Apgar, Barbara McClintock, Sarah Stewart, Bernadine Healy, and Rana Hogarth.

Guest post by Susan L. Speaker, PhD, Historian for the Digital Manuscripts Program of the History of Medicine Division (HMD) at the NIH National Library of Medicine (NLM), and Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, Chief of HMD at NLM.

One important role of NLM staff is to research, curate, explain, and make available historical collection materials. In doing so, our historians, librarians, archivists, and exhibition specialists prioritize the history of underrepresented groups, stories of advocacy and change, and materials that demonstrate the relevance of history to current events. Although this Women’s History Month will soon conclude, we recognize women who have made a difference in the history of health care and medicine — as well as women who make history — year round.

NLM’s collections span ten centuries, encompass a variety of digital and physical formats, and originate from nearly every part of the globe. For many years, through a constellation of research, curation, and public programs connected to these collections, we have shared the stories of women — healers, naturalists, midwives, nurses, physicians, scientists, artists, advocates, and patients.

These individuals have included — among many others — Faye Abdellah, who became the first nurse to achieve the rank of Rear Admiral, Upper Half, a two-star rank, in the U.S. uniformed services, as well as the first nurse and woman in the 200-year history of the United States Public Health Service to hold the distinguished position of Deputy Surgeon General; Virginia Apgar, the neonatologist who developed the Apgar scoring system for evaluating newborns; and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree from an American medical school, overcoming many obstacles and establishing a foundation for American women physicians. We have also featured Selma and Lois DeBakey, icons of both medical literature preservation and communications; Bernadine Healy, the first female Director of the NIH, and Inez Holmes, World War II veteran and nurse who trained at the Piedmont Tuberculosis Sanatorium for the treatment of African American patients in Virginia.

Among the others we have recognized through our curation are geneticists Barbara McClintock and Maxine Singer; chemist and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray diffraction images of DNA revealed its helical structure; embryologist, cell physiologist, and public health administrator Florence Sabin; and philanthropist Mary Lasker, whose public health advocacy helped to spur a vast expansion of NIH.

Through our curation we have also brought forward historical knowledge about many groups of women and their wide-ranging experiences, expertise, interests, and roles in medicine and science. These groups have included women of the Frontier Nursing Service, women who composed unique, handwritten “receipt” books in which they noted, tested, and revised formulas for household remedies for common medical problems, as well as women physicians and nurses in the armed services of World War I and World War II. We have also told important stories about women who changed the face of medicine through their leadership and expertise, and those who confronted domestic violence and improved women’s lives.

We have also shown how women’s historical presence is sometimes obscured in larger accounts and must be made visible through careful reading and piecing together textual and visual evidence. Such curation enables us to reveal the stories of women who worked in labs at NIH, like Hope Hopps, as well as lab workers who worked in the California State Hygiene Lab in Berkeley just before World War I, and medical students who gathered tuberculosis patient data at Johns Hopkins University at the turn of the last century. NLM is also steward of the papers of early twentieth-century women bacteriologists whose important work is not widely known, including Alice Evans, Sarah Stewart, and Margaret Pittman. We collect and make these papers available to interested investigators, preserving their stories for future research.

Along with our many efforts focused on highlighting the experiences and voices of women in our collections, we also amplify the voices of today’s women historians, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, who have studied our collections to advance their research. This month, we welcomed to our NLM History Talk series Patricia Palma, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Historical and Geographic Sciences at the University of Tarapacá, Arica, Chile. Dr. Palma spoke about her research on homeopathic therapies in Peru during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, drawing on unique materials held by our institution. Last month, we welcomed Deirdre Cooper Owens, PhD, the Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine & Director of the Humanities in Medicine Program, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dr. Cooper Owens spoke about women whose stories of enslavement are part of the history of gynecology in the United States. In April, we will welcome Rana A. Hogarth, PhD, Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who will speak on how people of African descent became targets of eugenic study during the early decades of the twentieth century. 

Notably, many of these curatorial efforts are themselves brought you by the women of NLM —archivists, librarians, historians, and exhibition and technical specialists. So, as we work year round to recognize women in history and connect with women making history, we also recognize each and every one of our colleagues who are themselves making history through their public service here in the world’s largest biomedical library!

Dr. Speaker has been Historian for the Digital Manuscripts Program since 2002. She conducts research, selects documents, and writes in-depth contextual narratives for the Profiles in Science project, and she carries out other historical work for HMD including articles, blog posts, presentations, and oral histories on a variety of topics. She is also the historical consultant for the NLM Web Collecting and Archiving Working Group. Dr. Speaker is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

As Chief of the NLM HMD, Dr. Reznick leads all aspects of the division in cooperation with his colleagues and has over two decades of leadership experience in federal, national-nonprofit, and academic spaces. As a cultural historian, he also maintains a diverse, interdisciplinary, and highly collaborative historical research portfolio supported by the library and based on its diverse collections and associated programs. Dr. Reznick is author of three books and numerous book chapters and journal articles, including, as co-author with his colleague Kenneth M. Koyle of “History matters: in the past, present & future of the NLM” published by the Journal of the Medical Library Association in 2021.

Learn more about many more women in medical history—and women making medical history—through the NLM HMD blog Circulating Now, Profiles in Science, @nlm_collections on Instagram, and the free NIH Videocast archive of NLM History Talks

NLM Staff: Supporting Biomedical Discovery and Advancing Public Health

I am very pleased and proud of the hard work, dedication, and accomplishments of the 1,700 NLM staff members who have gone above and beyond in 2021 by demonstrating their commitment to advancing our critical mission. Every day, NLM staff transform information into knowledge, which enables researchers, clinicians, and the public to use biomedical data to improve health and save lives.

This month, we celebrate the many accomplishments of our staff across NLM. While our celebration will not be in person this year, it still gives me great pleasure to recognize the individuals and teams at NLM who have demonstrated their hard work and dedication through special acts of service, exemplary performance, and decisive moments of leadership.

I want to take a moment to express my deep appreciation for the technical staff at NLM who have worked tirelessly to ensure that people around the world continue to have access to NLM’s vast research and information services including ClinicalTrials.gov, GenBank, PubMed, and PubMed Central. They can also take credit for making it possible for NLM staff to continue to work under maximum telework conditions, ensuring that each and every quibble with technology is fixed, and our employees are able to be online wherever their home office may be.

We recognize 565 staff this year for an impressive list of accomplishments. I’m happy to report that NLM staff continue to make incredible achievements that advance our mission despite the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are pleased to recognize more than 200 Special Act or Service awards made by our colleagues encompassing both individual and group awards. These awards recognize short-term accomplishments, meritorious acts, public service, and scientific or other achievements accomplished within or outside one’s designated responsibilities. Achievements include continued efforts to support a variety of COVID-19 initiatives, ensuring contracts and grants are awarded, and upgrading to modern and more efficient systems – all accomplished while working remotely!

We also honor individuals’ milestone years of service, including three staff members with 40 or more years of service and 12 people who have worked in the federal government for 30 years or more. They were joined by 28 staffers with 20 years of service and another 20 with 10 years — representing years upon years of experience and dedication to public service. The efforts of these people have made a lasting difference to NLM and to the public.

In addition to honoring the recipients themselves, these awards also bring important recognition to the talents and contributions of NLM staff across the biomedical research enterprise.

As 2021 ends, I want to recognize all NLM staff for their commitment and service to make scientific literature and genomic, clinical, and other types of biomedical data readily available to those who need it — 24/7. Our success is driven in large part by our ability to adapt to changing technologies that support biomedical discovery and enhance individual and public health. I remain impressed by and grateful for our NLM team!

Guest NLM contributors: Sarah Ashley Jolly and Christine Winderlin.

Turning Talent into Treasure

One of NLM’s greatest assets is its talented, creative workforce. Last year, NIH called on its 27 Institutes and Centers to step up to mount an effective response to COVID-19. Supported by Congress, NIH invested more than $2 billion to ensure rapid access to COVID-19 testing for everyone in the United States — funding research to accelerate access to vaccines and therapeutics and leveraging existing clinical trials and electronic health record data to characterize, monitor, and treat the long-term sequalae of COVID-19 infections.

How is NLM supporting NIH’s COVID-19 response? Well, not surprisingly, our literature and genomic repositories are key to inspiring new research and providing the reference annotated genomes used to evaluate the SARS-CoV-2 virus and help discern its variants. Our Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) gives NLM a face in communities across the United States, providing trustable, community-specific health information and increasing community engagement in NIH research programs. Our researchers are developing new analytic tools to more efficiently interpret medical images and refine the taxonomy of viruses so the properties of related viruses can be better understood. All of these activities draw on the talents of our almost 1,700 staff and the extensive partnerships we have with collaborators within the government and across the country. But it’s our special knowledge of data science, library science, and informatics that is making it possible for NIH to set up many new research programs with systematic attention to data coordination, data reuse, and data integration.

I want to highlight the talents of people working diligently across NIH. When NIH receives congressional funding for new programs or innovative research, a lot of work happens behind the scenes before these funds are awarded to investigators. Program announcements are written, solicitations offered, proposals received and reviewed, and awards made. Each of these steps requires an enormous amount of human effort. NIH has staff engaged in all of these activities for our typical programs and standard research mechanisms. To date, NIH received almost $4.9 billion to fight COVID, which is about 8.8% of the NIH’s total budget of nearly $43 billion for fiscal year 2021. NIH efforts to address COVID required a legion of staff members to refocus their regular priorities to participate in this emergency response. The contributions of NLM staff in this effort were amazing, with nearly 50 people from NLM stepping up to help write funding announcements, participate in reviews, and/or managing the awards process.

In particular, I want to elevate the work of three of our NLM staff who have made significant contributions to this effort. Yanli Wang, PhD, is a program officer in our Division of Extramural Programs. Because of her expertise in data science and training in chemistry, Dr. Wang was detailed to the RADx Radical (RADx-rad) program. RADx-rad is supporting innovative approaches, including rapid detection devices and home-based testing technologies, that will address current gaps in COVID-19 testing and extend existing approaches to make them more usable, accessible, or accurate. Dr. Wang serves as the program officer for the Discoveries and Data Coordinating Center and is working to provide programmatic stewardship and make sure that data across all studies is collected in a systematic manner that fosters data integration and data reuse. A critical aspect of Dr. Wang’s work is fostering the uses of common data elements across the projects and over time.

Two NLM staff members support NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery or RECOVER Initiative. RECOVER is studying the post-acute experiences of the estimated 10% to 30% of people who contract COVID-19 and continue to experience a range of symptoms. Amanda J. Wilson, Chief of NLM’s Office of Engagement and Training, is our representative to the RECOVER Initiative executive and coordinating committee. In this role she helps prepare the many funding announcements that stimulate research or reuse of clinical data to best understand this complex problem. Ms. Wilson leverages the extensive resource of the NNLM in support of community-based education and support of the COVID-19 crisis.

Another NLM staffer supporting the RECOVER Initiative is Paul Fontelo. In addition to his roles in training and research in NLM’s Intramural Research Program, Dr. Fontelo is a pathologist by training. He provides specialized expertise to the Autopsy Cohort Studies to identify tissue injury due to SARS-COV-2 infection, delivers technical direction to awardees, and approves certain deliverables and reports as required. He also participates in the application reviews of the Autopsy Cohort and the Mobile/Digital Health platform and is a member of the Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 Executive Coordination Committee.

I’m grateful to these colleagues, and many more across NLM, who are going above and beyond their usual job responsibilities to help NIH step up to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic! Join me in thanking them for their efforts and using the talents of the NLM to create invaluable treasures for NIH!

Every End has a New Beginning

Last week Francis Collins, MD, PhD, announced his plans to step down as the Director of the National Institutes of Health after serving in this position for 12 years. Francis is a force of nature — a tall man with a gigantic vision of how science can serve and improve society. I could recount for you the many ways Francis and his wife, Diane Baker, enhanced NIH.

It was Francis’ vision to establish the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at NIH, launch the All of Us Research Program – uniting one million people throughout the United States to advance science through the study of everyday health, and mobilize NIH and a network of partners to mount an effective campaign against the COVID-19 pandemic. Blending his scientific expertise with a deep love for music, Francis launched the Sound Health Initiative between NIH and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts, to bring together neuroscience and music to explore the potential for music to treat a wide range of conditions resulting from neurological and other disorders. 

Diane made it her mission to be sure that the children, patients, and families who came to the NIH Clinical Center for with hopes of life-saving therapeutics felt the support of the entire NIH community. Whether it was mobilizing volunteers to cook a Sunday dinner for families at The Children’s Inn at NIH or organizing fundraisers to provide free lodging and support for families whose children were undergoing treatment, Diane was there. Personally, Diane reached out to me when I arrived at NIH and encouraged me to find ways NLM could enhance its support to patients and families. This very invitation led to some wonderful connections that resulted in making NLM’s resources more valuable to more people.

Francis taught me what it means to have a boss with passion and vision. His personal engagement with data science and molecular biology made him keenly aware of the value of NLM’s mission to advance science. He listened carefully as NLM leadership made a case for modernizing our important resources that support broad access to genomic data and enable researchers, clinicians, patients, and the public find clinical trials information. Francis had a knack for putting NIH Institute and Center directors in front to tell the story of NIH’s accomplishments to Congress and the public. It is this very strategy that helped me recognize that the best spokespeople for NLM are those leaders who provide our services every single day.

We are at the dawning of a new era — for Francis and Diane, for NIH, and for NLM. Francis is not leaving NIH – he will continue to lead his research laboratory at the National Human Genome Research Institute, with a focus on the genomic basis for diseases such as type 2 diabetes. I am sure Diane’s passion for public service will continue to find new expressions.

Under new leadership, NIH will grow in new ways that I know will be grounded in our decades of accomplishments in understanding the basic mechanisms of disease, mobilizing research to improve public health, and data-driven discovery. NIH will persist in its commitment to advance health equity while addressing structural racism. NLM will continue to expand its investments in scientific communication, large-scale data resources, and the network needed to be sure that the opportunities and benefits of science reach people in communities across the country through our Network of the National Library of Medicine.

I send my best wishes to Francis and Diane with my deepest respect, gratitude for your support of the NLM and its mission, heartfelt thanks for what you have taught me, and a great blessing of the Irish:

May the blessings of each day
Be the blessings you need most
.

– Irish Proverb

THANK YOU, FRANCIS!

%d bloggers like this: